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Dems vow rules overhaul to empower members if House flips

Dems vow rules overhaul to empower members if House flips
© Greg Nash

Should they take back the House in November, Democrats are vowing not only a shift in legislative priorities and much stronger White House oversight, but also rules changes on how the chamber is run.

House GOP leaders this year hit a dubious milestone when they broke the single-cycle record for reporting closed rules — the procedural step barring lawmakers from amending bills when they hit the floor.

In the eyes of Democrats, and a growing number of Republicans, the distinction highlights a disturbing creep toward top-down legislating that’s stifled debate, paralyzed rank-and-file members and thwarted the “more inclusive” process Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care Trump urges Dems to help craft new immigration laws: ‘Chuck & Nancy, call me!' Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa MORE (R-Wis.) promised when he took the gavel three years ago.

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Vowing to reverse the trend, Democrats are weighing a host of changes to House guidelines if they capture the chamber in the midterm elections. Although draped in the esoteric procedures of the House Rules Committee, Democrats say their goal is simple: To break the partisan gridlock and usher in a new era of lawmaker empowerment.

“The Rules Committee has become the place where democracy goes to die. We have a system that’s rigged — it’s purposefully designed to shut out ideas that Republicans don’t like and can’t beat,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who’s in line to take the Rules gavel if the House flips, said by phone.

“For the sake of bringing some integrity back to the institution, we need to do things differently,” he continued. “It means we’re going to have to have a more accommodating process where we give more members a voice, including members who have some ideas that we may not like.”

To launch the debate early, Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPelosi heckled by Miami Republicans, Proud Boys at campaign event Pelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care Trump urges Dems to help craft new immigration laws: ‘Chuck & Nancy, call me!' MORE (D-Calif.) is encouraging members to submit reform suggestions to McGovern and the other Democrats on the Rules panel. The goal, she said, is to foster a process “of civility, fairness and transparency.”

“As we move toward a more Democratic Congress, we promise a more democratic Congress,” she wrote to her troops heading into the August recess.

Members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus are ahead of the curve, proposing a slate of 10 rules changes that’s getting a good deal of attention from leaders of both parties. Central to their reforms is a proposal requiring a supermajority vote — three-fifths of the House — to pass any legislation brought to the floor under a closed rule, and another ensuring fast-track consideration of any bill co-sponsored by at least two-thirds of the chamber.

A third recommendation from the Problem Solvers Caucus — a group of 48 lawmakers, split evenly between the parties — would raise the bar for ousting a sitting Speaker by requiring one-third of the House to publicly support such a motion. Supporters say that change would prevent a small group of detractors from using threats to “vacate the chair” as a bludgeon to keep certain bills — even popular bipartisan ones — from being considered, as the far-right House Freedom Caucus has done under both Ryan and his predecessor, John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE (R-Ohio).

“It allows a small faction to hold the Speaker hostage,” Rep. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerCentrists pledge to withhold support for Speaker unless House rules change Dems vow rules overhaul to empower members if House flips Problem Solvers Caucus has a vision: a bipartisan House MORE (D-N.J.), one of two co-chairmen of the Problem Solvers group, told The Hill. “It just leads to mass dysfunction.”

Outside groups are lending some heft to the effort. No Labels, a bipartisan government reform organization, has launched “The Speakers Project,” which aims to break the partisan logjam by changing House rules to require, among other things, that the incoming Speaker receive bipartisan support in order to win the gavel — an unheard of dynamic in modern times. The rules vote next January, the group argues, “presents a remarkable opportunity for a handful of reform-minded members to jolt the sclerotic House out of its torpor.”

McGovern said the rules recommendations are still filtering in — in a conference call with Democrats last week he gave his colleagues a Sept. 7 submission deadline — and there’s no expectation that a final package will emerge before the elections, not least because the outcome remains unknowable.

Still, several reform proposals seem to be rising to the top of the list. One, which would bar lawmakers from sitting on corporate boards, is designed to curb conflicts of interest following this month’s arrest of Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsElection Countdown: Florida Senate fight resumes after hurricane | Cruz softens ObamaCare attacks | GOP worries Trump will lose suburban women | Latest Senate polls | Rep. Dave Brat gets Trump's 'total endorsement' | Dem candidates raise record B GOP Rep. Chris Collins raised from within district after indictment Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach MORE (R-N.Y.), who’s been charged with insider trading while he was a board member of an Australian pharmaceutical company.

A second proposal would empower House delegates to vote on bills considered when the chamber meets as the committee of the whole — a parliamentary device used to expedite legislation through the chamber. The Democrats have granted the delegates that power when they’ve controlled the House in the past, most recently under Pelosi’s Speakership between 2007 and 2011. Republicans have stripped it away each time they’ve taken the gavel.

The change is primarily symbolic: delegates, even under the Democrats’ rules, could not be the deciding vote on any bill. But supporters say the adjustment would allow delegates to be more representative of their constituents.

“We regard it as a down payment on full voting rights,” Washington, D.C., Del. Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Steady Kavanaugh proves to be a tough target for Democrats Dems vow rules overhaul to empower members if House flips Overnight Health Care: House votes to repeal medical device tax | Fierce ObamaCare critic joins administration | GOP senators target DC individual mandate MORE (D) told The Hill.

Democrats are also eyeing the installation of pay-as-you-go rules, designed to rein in deficit spending, which were also in place when they last held power.

The rules debate has simmered for several years, escalating in 2015 when Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsConservative rep slams Rosenstein's 'conflicts of interest' The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Trump, Obama head to swing states with Senate majority in balance Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate MORE (R-N.C.), now the Freedom Caucus chairman, threatened a vote to topple BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE, who had taken the gavel with promises to open the floor and “welcome the battle of ideas.” Meadows’s resolution charged that the opposite had occurred, accusing Boehner of trying to “consolidate power and centralize decisionmaking.”

Instead of risking a nasty intraparty fight, Boehner resigned within weeks.

Ryan, who also took the gavel vowing a “more participatory” process, has since heard similar complaints, which crescendoed in May when the Rules Committee reported its 84th closed rule, breaking the record set by Boehner four years earlier. The number has since jumped to 95.

Republicans, behind Rules Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Election Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage Credit union group to spend .8 million for vulnerable Dem, GOP incumbents MORE (R-Texas), contend the figures are misleading, pointing to the more than 1,000 amendments they’ve allowed to proceed this cycle. But Democrats are unmoved, noting that no bills have been reported under an open rule all Congress long, while popular bipartisan proposals tackling issues like immigration and prescription drug costs have been shelved altogether.

“I feel like we’re living in an authoritarian regime,” McGovern said.

Sessions’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

Democratic leaders, for their part, are no strangers to charges of top-down governing. Pelosi, when she held the gavel, was hammered — largely by Republicans — with charges that she ran the chamber out of the Speaker’s office. And while McGovern defended Pelosi as much more inclusive than the current Republicans, he also suggested that the changes now under consideration would take lessons from that era.

“I’m not here to say that when Democrats were in control, they ran everything perfectly,” he said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is make sure that more members are part of the process.”

Democrats urging more legislative openness may face blowback from their liberal base, which is energized against President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council MORE and would look to a newly empowered Democratic majority to fight fiercely for a progressive agenda. Those voices may pressure party leaders to revert to Republican tactics for the sake of passing preferred policy items.

Gottheimer, however, dismissed those potential tensions, arguing that the elections will likely give voice to moderate voters — a group he calls “the silent middle” — eager for more cooperation on Capitol Hill.

“I don’t think anyone should kowtow to the extremes on either side,” he said.

McGovern echoed that message, saying Democrats can be successful without ramming legislation through the chamber.

“We would make a terrible mistake if we mimic their behavior,” he said.

“I have a lot things I want to see done in terms of policy initiatives, and I’m going to fight like hell, if we win, to see them enacted,” he added. “But victories on those issues are more legitimate if there’s a fair process.”